The elephant in the room
Four days ago Cardinal George Pell was sentenced to six years in prison for sexual misconduct involving two boys in the 1990s. After terms as the Archbishop of Melbourne and the Archbishop of Sydney, he held senior positions at the Vatican. Pell was the treasurer of the Vatican and the Holy See in Rome, a high-ranking position that makes him among the world’s most powerful Catholics. He is the Roman Catholic Church’s most senior official to be convicted of child sexual abuse.
The Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was dominated by abuses perpetrated in the Roman Catholic Church. The scale and nature of abuse uncovered in Catholic institutions was staggering. Between 1980 and 2015, 4,444 people reported allegations of child sexual abuse to Catholic authorities. There were 1,880 Catholic leaders subject to allegations of abuse in over 1,000 separate institutions. In total, 7% of Catholic priests in Australia between 1950 and 2010 were accused of child sexual abuse.
Furthermore, Pope Francis has acknowledged that the sexual abuse of nuns was an ongoing problem. In Australia, reports suggest the number of Catholic women abused by priests vastly outnumber the survivors of child sexual abuse uncovered by the Royal Commission into the issue. And Catholic women are speaking out under the #NunsToo hashtag.
One of the recommendations the Royal Commission has made related to the Catholic Church is that they “consider introducing voluntary [rather than compulsory] celibacy for diocesan clergy” (Recommendation 16.18). Another was to “implement measures to address the risks of harm to children and the potential psychological and sexual dysfunction associated with a celibate rule of religious life” (Recommendation 16.19).
The Roman Catholic church has a tradition that its clergy be unmarried and celibate. The earliest record of this practice dates from about AD 300. It’s considered to be an act of self-sacrifice.
But the Protestant Reformers disagreed with this requirement arguing that it was contrary to Biblical teaching (1 Cor. 9:5; 1 Tim. 4:1-5; Heb. 13:4) and implied a degradation of heterosexual marriage. They also blamed it for the widespread sexual misconduct within the clergy at the time of the Reformation.
When Paul stated the rights of an apostle, he included “Don’t we [apostles] have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas [Peter]” (1 Cor. 9:5NIV). This implies that some of the apostles, including Peter, were married. And they had the right to take their wives on ministry trips and both receive financial support from the church. The apostles were leaders of the first church (Acts 6:1-6), which was in Jerusalem, and were evangelists that spread the good news about Jesus in Judea, Samaria, and across the Roman Empire (Acts 1:8). So heterosexual marriage wasn’t forbidden for the apostles.
Near the end of his life, Paul warned against false teachers that taught that the material world was evil (a form of Gnosticism). “The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim. 4:1-5). The false teachers were forbidding heterosexual marriage and forbidding eating certain foods. But before sin entered the world God instituted heterosexual marriage for the propagation of human life (Gen. 1:27-28; 2:22-24). There is nothing unholy about heterosexual marriage. So the Bible teaches that it’s wrong to forbid heterosexual marriage.
The final chapter of Hebrews begins with some general instructions for Christian living. The fifth instruction is that “(heterosexual) marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral” (Heb. 13:4). So heterosexual marriage must be valued as God’s design for humanity (Gen. 2:24; Mt. 19:4-6; Eph. 5:22-33).
Nowhere does the New Testament explicitly require church leaders to be unmarried and celibate. In fact, it indicates that they were usually married because being “faithful to his wife” was one of the qualifications for each church leader (1 Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:6).
What else does the Bible say?
There are two biblical passages that advocates use to justify clerical celibacy (Mt. 19:10-12; 1 Cor. 7:25-38). In the first passage, after Jesus answered a question about divorce, the disciples said “it is better not to marry”. When Jesus described the cases when this applies, he said, “some choose not to marry for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. Let anyone accept this who can” (Mt. 19:12NLT). Jesus recognizes those who have voluntarily adopted an unmarried (celibate) lifestyle in order give themselves more completely to God’s work. They voluntarily adopt a single life “for the sake of the kingdom”. But it’s not mandatory to be unmarried to serve the Lord. Married people can serve the Lord as well.
“Now about virgins: I have no command from the Lord, but I give a judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for a man to remain as he is. Are you pledged to a woman? Do not seek to be released. Are you free from such a commitment? Do not look for a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this” (1 Cor. 7:25-28NIV).
Jesus Christ wasn’t married, but the apostle Peter was married. Under certain circumstances celibacy is recommended in scripture (1 Cor. 7:25-38), but it is never presented as superior to heterosexual marriage. According to the NET Bible, this passage is addressed to “young, engaged women who were under the influence of various groups within the Corinthian church not to go through with their marriages. The central issue would then be whether the young men and women should continue with their plans and finalize their marriages”. And the situation in which this advice applies is “the present crisis” (1 Cor. 7:26). According to the NIV Study Bible, this is probably a reference to the pressures in the Christian life in an immoral and hostile society (1 Cor. 5:1; 7:2, 28; 1 Tim. 3:12). Also, Christians were being imprisoned and martyred at this time. And persecution is more difficult for married people than for single people. Paul said that if a person is single during persecution then it’s better to remain single (1 Cor. 7:27). But it’s not wrong to marry if they must (1 Cor. 7:28). The principle is that it’s not good to marry in times of distress.
“What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:29-31).
Paul also says that, when in crisis, we need a radical perspective about proper priorities in life (1 Cor. 7:29-31). That’s when husbands and wives must focus on the Lord, rather than on each other. Marriage can be a distraction in times of trouble.
“I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife—and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:32-35).
Paul says that unmarried Christians can focus more consistently on the Lord’s affairs (1 Cor. 7:32, 34b). Married Christians must be concerned about the affairs of this world, such as their spouse and children (1 Cor. 7:33 34a, 34c). Their interests are divided between their family and the Lord. They can’t give “undivided devotion to the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:35). And because Christ’s coming is near, husbands and wives should put their relationship with the Lord above their relationship with their spouse (1 Cor. 7:29). So, the unmarried generally have more time available to serve the Lord. Single people should view their singleness as a special opportunity to serve the Lord. But people are free to choose between being married or remaining unmarried. There should be no compulsion to forbid heterosexual marriage.
According to the Bible, heterosexual marriage must be valued as God’s design for humanity. Because of this, heterosexual marriage wasn’t forbidden for the apostles. And leaders in the early church were usually married; they had wives. But it’s not good to marry in times of distress.
Unmarried people generally have more time available to serve the Lord. And Jesus recognized those who voluntarily adopted this lifestyle. But it’s not mandatory to be unmarried to serve the Lord. Married people can serve the Lord as well. So it’s wrong to forbid heterosexual marriage for those involved in Christian ministry. For them, whether to be single or married should be an optional choice, not a mandatory rule.
So the rule in the Roman Catholic church that its clergy be unmarried is unbiblical. It has no biblical support whatsoever. But is the Catholic church willing to follow what the Bible teaches on this topic? And will they be willing to implement the recommendation of the secular Royal Commission on this topic? Or will the elephant remain in the room?
Because of the legalisation of homosexual marriage in our society, I have generally used the term “heterosexual marriage” in this post. Whereas in the past I would have used “marriage” because, until recently, “marriage” was always assumed to be heterosexual.
Written, March 2019